Running on empty: dangers in “deus ex machina” theology

In a section recapping some Olympic news, the September 8 issue of World Magazine had a short piece about Ryan Hall, a record-setting runner who many considered to hold great promise as a contender in the 2012 Olympics. He received lots of attention due to his successes, and was the subject of a cover feature by Runner’s World Magazine in 2008 and appeared in an AT&T commercial this summer.

In London in 2007, running only the third marathon of his life, Hall posted the fastest time ever by a U.S.-born American citizen, 2:06:17.

So how did he do in the 2012 Olympics?

Five years later, in the same city and with Olympic glory at stake, Hall pulled out of the marathon after 10 miles due to a right hamstring strain. It was a disappointing follow-up to his 10th-place finish four years ago in Beijing.

What’s sad is the reason why he performed so badly.

Hall’s Olympic shortcomings have critics questioning his training practices. The 29-year-old left the prestigious Mammoth Track Club and coach Terence Mahon two years ago, moving to Redding, Calif., to join Bethel Church, a faith-healing ministry. Hall believes his Christian faith and self-awareness preclude his need for a coach. [my emphasis]

For those not familiar with the bubble of charismatic Christianity and its celebrity worship, Bethel Church is the famous headquarters of pastor Bill Johnson and associate pastor Kris Vallaton, whose prosperity gospel and healing “ministries” are extremely popular in the charismatic community these days. The Redding church has a famous “school” that teaches its students how to “move in the gifts of the Spirit”, and its leaders globetrot spreading their message and demonstrating their techniques. I know a local church (in Georgia!) that got turned inside outwards because many started devoutly following the Bethel movement; a core group from the church left it and began attending a Bethel-affiliated church two hours away, ostensibly to get closer to the “power source”. It’s a destructive theological system in more ways than one, and Ryan Hall is yet another victim of its message.

I hope others will learn from this. But unfortunately, the gatekeeping apologists for it will have explanations for his failure other than the obvious, and the acute leader-centrism of the charismatic movement will preclude much reevaluation by the people in the congregations. But here’s hoping anyway.

But it seems to me that it’s not just charismatics that have things to learn from the shortcomings of this deus ex machina theology that keep its adherents blissfully, sinfully inert while awaiting a divine quick-fix. Many aspects of more mainstream Evangelicalism treat God as a shortcut to things we should be working harder on ourselves. And often enough, the negative results dwarf Ryan Hall’s embarrassing Olympic performance.

Praying for those in need is one that comes to mind. It’s fine, good, and even important to pray for everyone undergoing hardship, but even if we believe intercessory prayer is going to solve the problem, our prayers should all the more focus on submitting to God to develop within us a greater empathy, to be more keenly attuned to the needs of those around us, and especially to be on the lookout for ways to help people firsthand instead of outsourcing it to someone else (or Someone else) to take care of. Jesus didn’t divide up the sheep and the goats based on whether they prayed for “the least of these”. Surely those who had a chance to do something and yet satisfied their deus ex machina theology (conveniently mollifying their conscience at the same time) by praying for them would be closer to the goats in that parable. Or in the words of James 2.15-16, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Now, I’m not calling just any belief that God will step in to set things aright by the name of deus ex machina theology. It’s the thinking that we have some justification for kicking back and resting on our laurels in the name of “faith” or “monergism” that I’m criticizing. The faith that pleases God is faith in action, not blind, complacent trust in some ethereal solution to our problems.

Even if God is an interventionist God – indeed, even if He regularly intervenes in the dramatically supernatural ways expected by charismatics at their sufficiently faith-empowered whim – can there be any doubt that He’d rather be at the beck and call of His most obedient children who only ask for His empowerment after having sought to emulate His behavior to the best of their ability?

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  • Luke Holzmann

    Someone came up with a brutal spin on the whole “give Bibles” thing: “Your donation will go to giving Bibles to starving children everywhere.”

    …ouch… but at the same time, there is enough historical evidence to suggest that, perhaps, giving Bibles is the best way to secure a better future. Vishal Mangalwadi certainly contends for somethink related to this in his “Must the Sun Set on the West” series.

    But back on point: You are absolutely right. I’m a charismatic, but faith without works is dead.

    ~Luke

    • Well, if I didn’t think that the gospel (properly defined) could substantially improve conditions, I’d probably reconsider my Christianity. But it’s not enough to go from village to village preaching about Jesus and handing out the Bible; the short “believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved from hell” message of much missionary activity is a completely insufficient and inadequate gospel, and it does not help solve the systemic problems of poverty, sickness, and destitution faced by societies with real material needs. It’s at that point that the James quote really comes into play.

      I think this graphic originated as a commentary on specifically the Haiti situation (although it’s probably not isolated to Haiti) in which certain groups were holding material care ransom for church attendance and the like. That’s awful.